Tuesday, July 20, 2010


My dream vacation was to go to Istanbul, the favorite city of many friends, and the chance to see great mosques, like the Aya Sophia below. When an architect friend had a project to see in Turkey, I invited myself.

Aya Sophia
On the flight to London on Virgin Airlines, I ate a really good dinner, but got only one hour’s sleep. That may have prompted me to overeat at Heathrow from tiredness and because I had to wait for 3 hrs for my flight to Istanbul. However, I resisted pancakes and pastries and instead chose muesli with yogurt and milk – yummy and refreshing.

The flight on Turkish Air was pleasant and sandwiches were tasty. At the airport, Backpackers Travel (now high-end, no longer for backpackers only) had a nice, new, clean van ready to take me to the Ottoman hotel. It’s always better, when a woman travels alone, to have someone you can trust to introduce you to a new city. My friend was arriving the second day.

The Ottoman was great, and the breakfast even greater with many healthy options, although I probably ate too many whole grain cereals and breads, plus fruit, dried figs and yogurt. Before committing to five nights for me and my friend, I wanted to check it out. Unfortunately they didn't have rooms available as tourist season was starting.

Backpackers Travel showed me websites of boutique hotels, my preference, and made many calls to find one with a room for 5 days. It was the Avicenna Hotel, in the old city of Sultanahmet. The hotel was quaint and lovely so I settled in. They also had delicious breakfasts with healthy (and not healthy) foods.

The first morning was spent finding my bearings and taking the tram across the bridge. I had a salad lunch on my own in the hotel, and then went on a bus tour to the highest point on the Asia side. Yes, Istanbul is divided between Europe and Asia. The tour included a leather fashion show and heavy selling (ugh..) and a tour of a Sultan's summer palace – beautiful, and a view from the highest Asian point looking over Istanbul and the Bosphorus River.

Bosphorus and Istanbul from highest Asian point

That night, dinner was in the old city with three Muslim women from the tour. I invited myself to join them as a woman eating alone is uncomfortable. Also, it’s interesting to chat to women dressed in black hijabs wearing no makeup and with no hair showing. Two were from India, one from Germany, all converted in the past few years. They had time for dinner before evening prayers. They said they were dressed this way so they will not be noticed. I said that didn’t work as they were very much noticed - head to toe in black material in hot weather, and one is 6 feet tall! They found that amusing. I asked them about men. They said a man must choose them for themselves, not their looks. I said skanky women can’t find men, how will they? At the mosque? Well no, they are separated from the men. As I can’t give them any advice on dating, let me return to our meal.

We chose nutritious lentil soup as a starter and one of them shared a main course of meatballs with me. The famous meatballs had to be tried, and they were delicious. We then shared baklava and semolina pudding and agreed the baklava was the tastier of the dessert. They missed their late night prayers at the mosque but didn’t seem to be too bothered.

The second day my friend joined me. No more organized bus tours. We started exploring Topkapi Palace, walking through the grounds and around the buildings for hours. Beautiful and relaxing, with lunch in a non-touristy area I had found on the first day of exploring. We shared a sausage, kebab and steak platter, grilled vegetables, bread and salad. Delicious and very filling, actually too filling.... Not good.

I was warned about the Turkish Delights so had to try these sweets. I bought 2 small pieces, then the shopkeeper gave me 3 to try! Yikes! I was trying to limit my sweet intake then got sabotaged by a stranger. However, they were so good, I forgave him. Every day, I had to have a couple of Turkish Delights after my meals, and each time I was sabotaged. I resisted buying a box as that would truly be my biggest downfall.

In the afternoon, we took the tram to the last station in the Beyoglu area. As my friend is an architect, we walked up into the hills to see two Hyatt hotels and a really hip, nightclub-like W hotel. We had to sit down to rest for a while, so drank a latte in a really trendy coffee shop, House Café. Then the heavens opened up with loud thunder and lightning and the streets were turned into rivers.

When the storm cleared, we walked for another hour or two to the Four Season’s Hotel on the Bosphorus. Very glam. Then next door for a cocktail (me) and beer (my friend) at the Ciragan Palace. Happily they brought us nuts so the alcohol didn’t go to our heads. This hotel was swarming with security guards and police in boats on the water because of a meeting of the SW European Summit. We weren’t sure if we felt safer or not.

After walking for five hours we had a fish dinner under the Galata bridge. These restaurants are known for their fresh fish, and rightly so. A light, delicious meal.
For our third day, we walked to the spice market. These birds were all over the seeds. Very funny. Had to take a picture.
Birds on seeds at Spice Market

We walked up the hills and enjoyed getting lost. There were no tourists and we saw a lot of mosques, old buildings and scarves for $1. We saw then avoided the much-too-busy Grand Bazaar.

Lunch was at a typical Turkish restaurant, with cushions and lots of color. We had a delicious chicken and salad meal.

After that, the really amazing Basilica Cistern which was used for underground water storage and is full of carved columns, including two Medusa heads. Google that! Actually, Google all these sights.

The Aya Sophia museum/ancient Byzantine church/mosque was enormous and packed with busloads of tourists, so my friend found two mosques hidden in side streets. They were beautiful and had no tourists. We felt quiet chuffed about this.

That evening, we had drinks in the sedate garden of the fabulous Four Seasons in the old city, continuing with a healthy, delicious dinner in their restaurant.

We had to try the Turkish baths, so went bravely to Cemberlitas Hamami. Women are separate from men. I was shown to a locker room and given black bikini panties and a towel, taken to a large steam room with a hot marble slab and told to lie on it. The room had about 5 customers lying on the marble table and about 10 sitting on marble chairs. Looking around, I didn’t look the worst without clothing and no one knew me so I just let my embarrassment slide. The steam was hot and hard for me to breath in the beginning, however, I forgot about that when a woman in black bikini panties came over and started scrubbing my body. Ouch! Then she poured soap bubbles all over me. Nice. While lying there, 20-something girls arrived, celebrating a bachelorette party by dancing, playing drums and singing on the hot marble. They were so happy and fun. How did they do it when I could hardly breathe? I guess I’m a weakling. Their massage was in a room with 5 other ladies on tables. A really great but short 30-minute massage was done. I felt like I was in a train station. We were completely covered in oil so went to the showers. Afterwards we felt refreshed and energetic.

So at 11 pm we had drinks on our quiet hotel balcony overlooking the Bosphorus. Sublime!

On the fourth day, during another storm, we visited the archeology museum - very interesting and huge. Think Met.

Then took a cruise up the Bosphorus to where it meets the Black Sea at Anadolukavagi. We had another fresh fish lunch, beans & salad then climbed up the hill to castle ruins. It was steep and my friend was very impressed with my nimbleness and fitness.

Castle ruins with Bosphorus River and Black Sea in background

That evening, we went to the highly recommended Mikla restaurant at the Marmara Pera Hotel in Beyoglu, the best view ever of Istanbul and surroundings. They did not have a table for us so we had a drink with nuts and olives of course. Then was told a table had become free so we could enjoy food by award winning Turkish chef Mehmet Gurs. After my pina colada (a dessert), I only wanted a salad. The salad was enormous and delicious with walnuts and cheese. This is actually the portion size for a meal. The whole wheat bread was very fresh so had two slices. I would have liked more but they only serve olive oil with the bread and I like butter. My friend had swordfish and spinach - very tasty. We shared an amazing hot chocolate cake. All sophisticatedly prepared. We met two local girls and had fun chatting with them and their friends.

View from Mikla Restaurant

Our 5th day was lunch at the Orient Express restaurant at the train station - tasty  but boring steak and rice. Then took a train to the hip Ortokoy area for coffee at another House Cafe. I had been told about the baked potatoes at this spot, and saw them. Looked delicious!!! Enormous!!!! The largest potatoes ever, enough for four, and you could choose from numerous fillings. I was sad that I’d already eaten so could not enjoy this treat.

We then walked along the pedestrian street Istiklal to see an interesting art exhibition then back to Eninonu. The tunnel under the road was packed worse than Grand Central and really hot so we took a cab back to the Blue Mosque, near our hotel.

We were exhausted and our feet were tired. We took it easy then had dinner at our hotel - yummy meatballs and steak with lots of peppers and cooked tomatoes which are not my favorite veggies. Finished with rice pudding, one of my favorite foods. Hehehe.

On the 6th day, the trip to the SAW airport on the Asia side of Istanbul was an interesting experience, then not so interesting. From the highway, it looks like Asia, according to my well-traveled friend - hundreds of apartment buildings one after the other, broken up by a shopping complex or mosque or factory or corporation. The driver had water, fruit juice and processed cake for us. Good service, although the cake was like a Twinkie! The flight to Dalaman in SW Turkey was one hour. In this short period, we were served tea, water and cheese sandwich or cake. Food on a short flight? Go for it Turkish Airlines!

The 2-hour trip to Club Maris was pretty, then stunning as we went through mountains with glimpses of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

The luxury resort had the most stunning view I have ever seen, and I've seen many - stone islands and mountains dipping into the sea.


View from deck of Club Maris

Every meal was buffet–style - really hard for a former fatty. The first dinner consisted of a plate with 1/4 steak, 1/4 potato and 1/2 veggies – just as I recommend to my clients. The food was really good. Then the wheels came off. I had a choice of 100 fantastic desserts. It's like inviting an alcoholic to a bar. Willpower collapsed and I tried five of them. Yum! Avoided the wine or alcohol as that is not my interest.

Breakfasts were always nutritious - fruit, coffee, gruel (a tasty cereal), whole-wheat roll, scrambled eggs. I resisted pastries in the morning.

Lunch and dinner continued to be challenges as I tried hard to start with salads then a balanced plate of protein, carbs and veggies. Again I was out of control, limiting desserts to two. Oh dear.... Weight did creep up.

As for exercise, I swam and walked a bit, not a lot as it was too hot to walk around and I get bored swimming, even in the sea.

Swam here
But mainly read a book on this bed....

I should have practiced the movements of the amazing Chinese acrobats that blew me away!
My health recommendation for Turkey:
Order carefully.
If portions are large, do not finish all.
Try to avoid the yummy bread.
Even harder, try to avoid the desserts.
Be really strong at the all-inclusive resorts.
Have a fantastic time!